Friday Feature: Is this the end of the road for Saxo Bank?

Someone on Twitter joked the other day that Alberto Contador had put all his eggs into the basket of his ‘contaminated meat’ defence, only for it to turn out to be a red herring. Similarly, one could also argue that Bjarne RiisSaxo Bank team had put all their eggs into the Contador basket, with potentially even more serious implications. With their golden goose now suspended until August, Saxo Bank’s ProTeam status and their future existence are at stake. At the very least, Riis faces an uphill struggle to ensure his team remains in the upper echelon of professional cycling for 2013.

The facts

Image courtesy of Saxo Bank

The two-year backdated suspension handed out to Contador on Monday means he is ineligible to race until August 6th. The UCI is also reportedly seeking a minimum fine of €2.485m. That’s a lot of money for anyone, not least for a rider who has just spent a small fortune on expensive lawyers.

Under UCI regulations, the team has terminated its contract with Contador. However, statements made by both Riis and sponsor Saxo Bank suggest that he will be reinstated as soon as his sanction is lifted. Riis said:

We as a team, supported by all our sponsors, will continue to fully support Alberto based on the ruling from CAS. That ruling states that it is very unlikely that this is anything to do with conscious cheating. It said that the most likely reason is the accidental intake of a supplement … this is very important for us, so our trust in Alberto is still 100% intact.

If he wishes to continue with the team, our intention is the same. I would have no problem working with Alberto again.

He was backed up by Saxo Bank CEO Lars Seier Christensen, who told

This does not change anything for us. He is the world’s best cyclist, who in this way has been forced to fight in the dark and is now being pushed aside.

Christensen went on to contact L’Equipe, confirming in yesterday’s edition that the team would offer Contador a new contract as soon as his ban ends. He went on to claim there had been no negative impact on the bank, and that he considered it unlikely the team’s ProTeam licence would be revoked, saying:

It would be scandalous towards a team which has done so much for the sport.

Of course, he would say that, but it will have been a relief for the entire team to receive such unequivocal support from their main sponsor. Contador will undoubtedly return at the earliest opportunity with the obvious aim of racing in his ‘home’ Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, which starts on August 18th.

Implications for 2012

It goes without saying that Saxo Bank are weakened as a result of Contador’s departure, even if only for six months. Indeed, no other team in the peloton is as dependent on one rider. In 2011, Contador earned 471 of the team’s 696 points – nearly 68% – meaning they finished ninth out of the 18 ProTeams in the WorldTour rankings. Without him, Saxo Bank would have had a paltry 225 points, leaving them last by a considerable distance – the actual 18th-placed team, Vacansoleil-DCM, had 369 points – and would have faced the threat of losing their status in cycling’s elite division.

The UCI has said its licence commission will now re-examine Saxo Bank’s ProTeam licence. If it revokes the team’s status then Tour de France organiser ASO would not be obliged to invite them to this year’s race.

It is difficult to know exactly what course of action the UCI and ASO might choose to take, as the situation is unprecedented since the inception of the WorldTour last year. The UCI might choose to make an example of Saxo Bank, or they might show leniency on the basis that Contador was riding for Astana at the time of the failed test. However, it is possible that Saxo Bank could find themselves excluded from the Tour (although any team with Contador in it will certainly be invited to the Vuelta).

More pressing is the fact that, even if Saxo Bank’s status remains untouched, they will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient points to automatically retain their ProTeam status.

The pressure will be on Sorensen to step up his points haul in Contador

Should Contador return in early August, under UCI rules any points he earns over the next two years cannot be counted towards the team’s total. So even if he wins the Vuelta, Saxo Bank will not benefit. (Although, as Inner Ring points out, that rule is potentially vulnerable in the courts in the same way the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban policy is currently being challenged.)

In his absence, who is going to pick up the slack? The cupboard looks decidedly bare. Other than Contador, only three riders accumulated more than ten points in 2011. Nick Nuyens is a reliable Classics performer who earned all but one of his 101 points by winning the Tour of Flanders. Chris Anker Sorensen is a talented climber who earned exactly half of his 80 points with his sixth place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In Contador’s absence he will become the team’s protected rider more often in races such as the Tour de Romandie (where he won the mountains classification last year) and the Criterium du Dauphine (where he was 11th overall in support of Contador). Sprinter J J Haedo claimed 34 points, but will struggle to improve on that total this year. (Richie Porte, who would also have assumed more of a leadership role, moved to Sky in the off-season.)

The rest of the team will certainly have greater freedom to pursue point-scoring finishes in Contador’s absence, but with 400 likely to be the minimum threshold required to gain the top-15 place that would effectively guarantee ProTeam status for 2013, it’s hard to see where those points will come from. It could be a long, fraught season.

Implications for 2013

The longer-term picture is even more worrying. In an economic climate in which teams such as GreenEDGE and 1t4i have been forced to go it alone without a title sponsor, one has to question the long-term future of Saxo Bank as a backer, in spite of the supportive words of its CEO.

Former co-title sponsor Sungard pulled out late last year. It was stated that this was for ‘business reasons’, but it does not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the stigma of Contador’s doping case and his potential absence from racing might have had a significant impact on that decision too. (Indeed my understanding is that, when the initial news of Contador’s failed test broke in 2010, the company made it clear internally that they would terminate their sponsorship immediately if he was convicted.)

Could Contador end up at Movistar in 2013?

The good news for Riis is that, as a Danish company sponsoring a Danish-owned team, Saxo Bank’s relationship with the squad runs deeper than Sungard’s. And yet they nearly ended their sponsorship in 2010, until Contador signed. If the team were to be stripped of ProTeam status, or if they faced imminent relegation towards the end of the year, would Saxo continue to stand by Riis? It’s hard to imagine that they would, not least because it is difficult to picture Contador remaining at a team without a guaranteed spot at the Grand Tours. One could easily see him slotting in at, say, Movistar, as regular VeloVoices reader Dragos-Andrei Irimia points out:

I don’t see Saxo sticking around for long as a sponsor. And this news about Contador being a free agent (although he did say Saxo will have first option) is a game-changer. Movistar is rich and Spanish and the guy with a dog [Alejandro Valverde – Ed] is there …

Now what?

What happens next? Well, it depends whether your glass is half empty or half full.

If all goes well for the team they will retain their ProTeam licence, Saxo Bank will stay on board as a sponsor into 2013, the UCI rule about discounting points for two years will be dropped, and Contador will return triumphantly in August by winning his second Vuelta after Saxo Bank have raced at the Tour.

Is that possible? Yes, but it strikes me as being overly optimistic.

The doomsday scenario would be threefold: the licence commission removes Saxo Bank’s ProTeam status, ASO denies them entry to the Tour, and Saxo Bank invokes a force majeure clause in its contract to terminate its sponsorship with immediate effect. (I don’t know if such a clause exists, but it is entirely possible.) In which case, the team would probably ‘do a Geox’ and fold with virtually immediate effect.

I don’t think we will see the doomsday scenario happen – the first two elements are distinct possibilities, but I think Saxo Bank will honour its 2012 commitment and then quietly withdraw for, ahem, ‘business reasons’. That move alone would leave Riis Cycling in the lurch for 2013, and should Contador decide to take his talents elsewhere in search of guaranteed Grand Tour rides it is hard to see the team being an attractive proposition for any would-be sponsor. In that event, I suspect it really would be the end of the road. And I fear that is where we are heading.

What do you think? Will the Saxo Bank/Riis Cycling team weather the storm, or are they doomed?

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